House on a Red Cliff
There is no mirror in Mirissa
the sea is in the leaves
the waves are in the plants
old languages in thea rms
of the casuarina pine
generation to generation
The flamboyant** a grandfather planted
having lived through fire
lifts itself over the roof
the house an open net
where the night concentrates
on a breath
on a step
a thing or gesture
we cannot be attached to
The long, the short, the difficult minutes
where even in darkness
there is no horizon without a tree
just a boat's light in the leaves
Last footstep before formlessness
Michael Ondaatje 2000
*parampara - one following the other, succession (Sanskrit); the Hindu method of transmitting knowledge through a guru's answering a disciple's questions
** plant with flame-colored flowers
Hello All - sorry this one is late, but rehearsals go as they will (i.e. forever). I hope and trust that you are all doing well - it's been some time since we've had a meeting at the PotW site - for I do consider this a meeting place. If nothing else, your consciousness is meeting with that of the poem, and, if you read this respone, with mine. My lit professor was surprised that I thought about school stuff on my trip to Montana, but when better to think about ideas? We have to apply them - this poem of the week is just one way of practicing interacting with our environments.
My two lit classes this year are pushing me in a slightly different direction in terms of what poetry I like. We are examining so much of the social context of texts that I am starting to really appreciate when a poem or novel puts forth a strong sense of place, culture, or history. The very title of this poem suggests a place - specifically a House on a Red Cliff that we soon learn that it is in Mirissa - a town on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. This is the most solid assertion of place we glean from the poem, however. It might be better to discuss the "sense" of place, for Ondaatje stacks image on top of image and discourages exact specifity at every turn.
After all, "the sea is in the leaves / the waves are in the palms / old languages in the arms / of the casuarina pine". Nothing is where it is supposed to be - everything is contained. This is not, however, negative in the least; it is simply an interconnectedness of being. The past continues to the present, each generation learning from the last as a disciple learns from his master. "Parampara," the word describing this process, illuminates the idea that this is an exchange, but not tangible or laid out. It travels through the air, from ear to ear, based on personal experience and curiousity.
Nor is the containment restricting. The poem encourages throughout this sense of disembodiment; a house, usually a place of closure, ceilings, and walls is here "an open net," ready to catch someone or let her slip through the openings. This is why Ondaatje presents us with the lines "night concentrates... [on] a thing or gesture / we cannot be attached to". He wants to put forth the idea of ephemerality. This is somewhat ironic, actually, expressing an ephemeral thing through the long-lived vessel of poetry. Perhaps this idea can help, then, underline the concept that these actions, no matter how short lived, are still important.
Contrary to self couched in others (the sea in the leaves), the whispers of the past, and containers that don't restrict, Ondaatje says that there is still a point. Things are finite, and there is "no horizon without a tree". This could mean several things. Either there is always a bound no matter how far the eye can see, every vista includes nature, or simply that the landscape is tree-filled. I like to think, though, that the tree is actually a reference to the flamboyant that appears earlier in the poem. This way, everywhere one turns, there is a reference to the past, an artifact of perseverance (for the grandfather's tree flourished despite long years and fire).
I am realizing now that I am jerking you around a lot in this poem, first saying that it has a strong sense of place but that the place itself is mixed, then that it references images of containment that don't actually set boundaries (is this containment then? It may instead challenge our conventional methods of containment - i.e. the self containing identity, a house containing people, memories, or nostalgic ties) and finally that the world is actually bounded with images of perseverance. And I am about to jerk the meaning of this poem one more time by pointing out the closing line, "Last footstep before formlessness." This line seems to tend toward the dissoultion of self that (one could argue) exists in the rest of the poem. However, I think that it actually expresses a sense of identity through place.
This thought requires a little background on Ondaatje, not to mention that his personal experience has informed the narrator, even if Ondaatje is not the narrator himself. He grew up in Sri Lanka, moving to Canada to go to school and write. He often references the places he knew growing up, which I why I move to say that this poem is actually a story of home. All of the transitory images, the conflicting concepts resolve like beams of light if you think about the poem as an expression of a home. What is home, anyway? How does it connect with our identity? The answers to those questions are necessarily connected and immeasurably complex. Were someone to ask me about my deepest memories as a child (and perhaps how it feels to remember them), I might cite the poplar tree that got struck by lightning, a bonica bush in the rain, leaves against the sun, brown carpet, a Tonka truck, and flashes of my family. These images are varied and vague; if I mixed them with how I see myself now, how I understand my family history to have unfolded at home, and how that will affect me in the future, it might come out somewhat like "Red House on a Cliff."
If this discussion has been hard to follow, I apologise. The poem is difficult and scattered, requiring a more rigorous approach than I have given it here. This is one I may come back to and give a more comprehensive, argumentative treatment. Let me just leave you with the question of how identity gets tied to place. I think that, just as the selves, natural or otherwise, reflect each other within the poem, so do our selves enter and leave different elements of home. We become invested in them, momentarily losing our form by interacting with leaves, the casaurina pine, the house, the night etc. The last line, then, may also be the beginning of another of these encounters.